Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Red Harvest

I revisited a classic last week, rereading Dashiell Hammett's 1927 novel, "Red Harvest."

Dashiell Hammett is one of the writers who defined the hard-boiled school of detective fiction (along with Raymond Chandler, of course). Thanks to movies, most people are familiar, or at least have a passing acquaintance with two of his masterworks, "The Thin Man," and "The Maltese Falcon."

"Red Harvest" should be in that pantheon, too, but perhaps because its convoluted plot would make it more challenging to film than "The Watchmen," the story isn't as well-known.

That's a shame, because Hammett's in top form, pulling off a complex story with simple, straight-forward prose firmly rooted in reality. "Red Harvest" begins with the Continental Op coming to the small mining city of Personville. (The Continental Op was never given a name by Hammett in any of the stories featuring the character. He's simply a first-person narrator working as an operative for the Continental Detective Agency.)

Hammett himself was at one time a Pinkerton Detective. He drew on that experience for his stories, which makes the Continental Op's stories ring true.

"Red Harvest," like real life, seemingly doesn't follow a smooth, narrative arc. The hero is hired by Donald Willson, a crusading newspaper editor, to help him clean up corruption in Personville. The Continental Op never meets his client -- while waiting at his house, Willson is gunned down in front of a high-dollar prostitute's house.

Now most authors would use that as the starting point for their story. The hero, knowing that something's not quite right about the seemingly scandalous death of his client, would keep digging until he uncovered the real killer of Willson and exonerate his name.

If "Red Harvest" did that, it would be simply one of many such now-forgotten detective novels. Hammett goes a different route. Without a client, the Op simply prepares to leave. But the town patriarch Elihu Willson, Donald's father, retains him. Not to find his son's killer, but to rid his town of the mobsters that control it. Mobsters Elihu brought in to break the miner's union and now won't leave.

The Continent Op takes that job, and from there on the story is a thrill ride of deduction and gangland violence, all told in the no-nonsense voice of the narrator.

I got back to the hotel and got into a tub of cold water.. It braced me a lot, and I needed bracing. At forty I could get along on gin as a substitute for sleep, but not as comfortably.
The rulers of Personville have an uneasy alliance, and the Op is quick to spot the fault lines that can spit it wide open.

Within the first two chapters, he solves the Willson murder -- and that's just the beginning. He also finds the true killer of corrupt Police Chief Noonan's brother, a crime that took place years before, as well as at least three other deaths that happen in the course of the story.

Through a little bit of judicial misdirection, the Op sets the opposing forces against one another, and before the story's run its course, just about all the major characters, and many of the important supporting characters are dead.

"Plans are all right sometimes," I said, "and sometimes just stirring things up is all right -- if you're tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you'll see what you want when it comes to the top."
It's a grim story, but a rewarding one to read. When one thinks of hard-boiled detectives, usually its an image of a tough guy in a trench coat, spouting colorful similies ("the body was as cold as an old maid's smile"). Hammett takes a different approach. His Continental Op is just a guy doing his job, albeit one most of us are fascinated by.

In the end, it all comes down to the writing. Hammett's a master at painting a well-rounded character with a few deft strokes.
Thaler sat down and lit a cigarette, a small dark young man with a face that was pretty in a chorusman way until you took another look at the thin, hard mouth.

[The lawyer] Charles Procter Dawn was a little fat man of fifty-something. He had prying triangular eyes of a very light color, a short fleshy nose, and a fleshier mouth whose greediness was only partly hidden between a ragged gray mustache and a ragged gray Vandyke beard. His clothes were dark and unclean looking without actually being dirty.
Or setting a scene with the same economy:
The city wasn't pretty. Most of its builders had gone for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into yellow dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelter's stacks.

All of it comes together in "Red Harvest," a story that packs as much power and says as much about the human condition today as it did when it was published in 1929.

- Ralph

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